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Why do Cats Rub Their Heads on Objects?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Most cat owners can attest to the interesting, comical, and sometimes bizarre behavior of felines. Cats rub their heads on objects, people, and other pets for a number of reasons. They may be showing affection or contentment, or marking their territory by leaving their scent. A cat may also rub its teeth on a chair leg or the corner of a table in an effort to clean the teeth. Some cats are more prone to rubbing their heads on objects than others, and there is no reason to be concerned about health or happiness of a pet that does not do it often. Like people, cats are highly intelligent individuals with unique personalities and distinctive behaviors.

Animal behavior specialists, veterinarians, and highly attentive pet owners believe that cats rub their heads on objects primarily to mark their territory. Cats have scent glands on their heads and chin that release minute amounts of pheromones when they rub on things like furniture legs, cabinets, and door thresholds. The pheromones are not detectable by humans, but other cats in a multiple pet home recognize them easily.

A feline that appears to be putting a lot of effort into rubbing its head or chin on an object is likely trying to cover up the scent left by another pet in the home. Most cats rub their heads in an attempt to show others that they are dominant. Rubbing to mark territory is more common in male cats that have been neutered; males that have not been fixed might opt to spray an area with urine instead of rubbing his head on an object.

When cats do this to people, they are both marking their territory and showing affection. Some very affectionate cats will show their fondness by head-butting a person's hand or leg repeatedly, with considerable force. A more tentative feline might choose to softly rub up against a person. Cats generally only rub their heads on people when they are in good moods. A rubbing session is usually accompanied by purring, and any disturbance can promptly put an end to the behavior.

There may be many other reasons why cats rub their heads on things. Experts believe that female cats that have not been spayed will rub their heads on objects to inform potential mates that they are in heat. Additionally, a cat might rub against the corner of an object to help clean its teeth. If a cat that appears unhappy engages in frequent rubbing, it may be trying to scratch a pesky itch or experiencing an allergic reaction to fleas or other irritants. Pet owners are usually highly attentive to their cats' moods, and a distressed feline should be inspected by a licensed veterinarian to ensure it is healthy.

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Discussion Comments
By anon991297 — On Jun 10, 2015

We have a new cat who is not really used to us yet and it keeps rubbing on furniture nearby.

By JessicaLynn — On Dec 02, 2012

@LoriCharlie - I'm not sure if it means you cat is more "secure" than another cat. All cats are different, so you cat might have his own reasons for not rubbing his face on things around your house more often.

By LoriCharlie — On Dec 01, 2012
I've always wondered, "Why do cats rub their faces on things?" A friend actually explained this to me a little bit recently though. She was telling me that whenever she had people over, as soon as they leave, her cats go crazy rubbing their faces all over everything. She said this is so they can get their scent on it again, and I guess she was right.

My cat doesn't rub his face on things very often, but like the article said, not all cats do. Maybe this is because my cat feels very secure in his surroundings, he doesn't feel the need to mark his territory.

By JaneAir — On Nov 30, 2012

@starrynight - Yes, I would definitely prefer to have a cat rub his face on things rather than mark his territory in another, less pleasant way. Anyway, I know cats do this to mark their territory, but I think it's a nice sign of endearment too. The cat is basically saying you are theirs by rubbing their heads on you!

By starrynight — On Nov 29, 2012

I have a male cat who is neutered, and he rubs his head on stuff (including me) all the time. I knew this was a way of marking his territory and showing affection, but I had no idea that neutered cats did this more than male cats that aren't neutered.

I definitely prefer the head rubbing to the alternative though. I'm glad my cat rubs his head on stuff to make his presence known rather than peeing on things! You don't have to do any kind of cleanup if the cat is just rubbing his face on your furniture, but I can't say the same thing about cat urine.

By DylanB — On Nov 29, 2012

I am always suspicious of kittens when they go on a fierce rubbing streak with their heads. Sometimes, it's a trick to take you off your guard.

As many people are, I am drawn in by affection. When a cat is rubbing hard against my hand or leg, I think it's cute and I rub it back.

However, I have been taken advantage of by cute kittens who use this as a distraction. Why do cats bite you during an affection session? I've had more than one kitten be all cuddly and then suddenly clamp down on my hand with its teeth.

By stoneMason — On Nov 28, 2012

@Kristee-- That's really interesting.

Why would a stray cat rub its head on me though?

By JackWhack — On Nov 28, 2012

This is one aspect of cat's behavior that I do not mind. I have no problem with them “petting” me with their heads.

However, I hate it when they stick their tails in my face. I don't know if this is a territorial behavior or not, but I would much rather have the other end pointed toward me!

By fBoyle — On Nov 27, 2012

@feasting-- I think that's a sign of affection.

I believe cats are marking their territory when they rub against objects rather than humans or other animals. Like my cats tend to rub against objects in our garden to prevent other animals from entering.

It doesn't make sense for a cat to mark a dog as its territory. That would be funny!

By Kristee — On Nov 26, 2012

@feasting – They're marking their territory, even on your dog. My vet says that all the animals and humans in one household have a certain collective scent, and once one of the pets or humans goes out into the world, they bring home foreign scents that the cat wants to cover up.

I see it as a type of homesickness mixed with jealousy. The cat wants all the pets and people in the home to smell only like they should. The cat doesn't allow any foreign scents to take over.

So, if your dog runs outside to go to the bathroom and has a run-in with another animal, the cat will try to cover that scent up with its own scent by rubbing its head against him. Have you ever noticed your cat rubbing against you extra hard and extra long after you come home from work? My cat does this, and she also does it to my other cat after I take it to the vet and come back home with it.

By ysmina — On Nov 26, 2012

My cat likes to rub her cheeks on my face and purr. It's definitely her way of showing affection.

It's so sweet, like she's giving me a hug.

Cats are some of the most lovable animals. People say cats are distant and cold but that is not true at all. They are great pets and very affectionate to their owners.

By feasting — On Nov 26, 2012

Why do cats rub their heads on things like other animals? I can see how they would try to mark an inanimate object with their scent, but surely they wouldn't be so bold as to try to mark another family pet with it, would they? My cat rubs his head against my dog a lot, and I'm wondering if this is a sign of affection or something else.

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